My Cardboard Box

The Christmas Samaritan Incident

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“Could you do me a favor?”

The question stopped me in mid-turn. I knew Patti the Elf on a casual basis, since she always seemed to be behind the counter whenever I showed up at the Quick Stop.  She knew about my semi-monthly visits home,  the fuel-up before the long drive back. All four years of the routine.

She was tiny, red-haired, rail-thin and always wore a sweater. I’d teased her about it once, during the heat of July. Then she put her hand on the back of mine. Ice cold. That apparently never discouraged her boyfriend, a brawny six-foot-two mechanic who resembled a young Rocky Carroll and worked at one of the dealerships across the street. Patti the Elf told me once that he came to see her during every one of his breaks and at least once on the nights when she worked graveyard. Love, mysterious ways, and all that.

“If I can,” I replied.

“The guy who just left as you were coming in? I’m kinda worried about him. He looks like he might need a ride or something. He seemed like he had a rough night. I’m afraid he might get hit by a car. “

“Or get picked up and taken in?” Her mouth tightened and she half-nodded at my response. The Arizona Highway Patrol and the local cops were very efficient and professional and both visited this Quick Stop regularly. That the town was a particularly strong bastion of Mormonism in a region long-settled by Joseph Smith’s followers didn’t help matters any.

“Alright. I’ll see what I can do.” I waved off her quiet “thank you” and went outside to find him. It was in still in the forties, the sun barely up and trying to break through the combination of low clouds and smog that’s part of a typical winter morning in The Valley of the Sun. It being Christmas Day didn’t improve matters any.

The man was standing by the DVD vending machine, unsteadily clutching a cup of coffee as he looked around. He’d been presentable, once. Light gray sports coat with a tie jammed in a pocket, over a blue and white shirt speckled with dried blood. Blue pants and still-polished black oxfords.  He looked over at me through metal-framed glasses skewed over a swollen nose and mouth. The features were heavy and Eastern European. Hair dark brown and still neatly combed.

“Morning,” I said, “The girl in there said you might need a ride.”

“Good morning,” He replied and then seemed to realize I was talking to him. “Yes, I believe I might, thanks.” The words had the precision that a certain level of inebriation brings.

“My car’s over here.” I gestured over to the rental. “You might as well get in and get warm while I gas up.” He carefully made his way over, just as a police motorcycle pulled up to the next row of pumps. A local cop.

The officer sat there for a minute or two on his bike, all-too-casually watching as my new passenger managed to get himself into my car without spillage or falling over. Then he spent some time looking  at me.  I returned his sun-glassed gaze as I pumped gas. Maybe because it was that I was well-dressed and looked like a normal citizen ; the cop finally got off his motorcycle. He ambled inside, leather creaking, boots echoing off the concrete.

“I am staying at the Hyatt Plaza,” the man said as I climbed behind the wheel, “and thank you for doing this.” I mumbled something about it being Christmas and all as I drove away from the pump.

It was a few miles to the hotel and the story was nearly as short. His name was Pete, a ‘Polack’, as he put it, who worked as a quality technician at one of the few remaining steel mills around Pittsburgh. He’d flown into town to spend Christmas with the ex-wife and her family. It had been her idea. Apparently whatever ended the marriage was still fresh in the minds of her family. There had been an argument with an ex-brother-in-law. The argument  ended with the ex-brother-in-law using his fists, with Pete on the losing end. He’d spent rest of the evening  in various bars, a cab ride as far as most his remaining money would take him, then a long , cold walk to the gas station.

“Hell of a way to spend Christmas,” he mumbled around the cover of his coffee.

“Could be worse,” I said.

“Yes,” He replied and paused for a bit, “it… could be worse.”

We finally pulled up to the hotel entrance and he thanked me, again with precision.

“Get some sleep,” I said, holding his cup for him as he climbed out.

“Good idea,” he said, then he paused. “Maybe I’ll call her later today.”

“Sounds like a plan,” I told him. “Let her know you made it back okay.” He nodded did the thanks-and-Merry Christmas once more and staggered through the Hyatt’s automatic doors.

Not surprisingly, the motorcycle cop was at the end of the access drive leading to the main road. One boot on the ground, brake light lit.

I rolled down the window and gave him a slow salute.  I was surprised to get one in return along with a ‘Merry Christmas, sir’.

“Merry Christmas, officer.” He nodded and quickly turned his head to study the oncoming traffic. I turned onto the street and began the long drive-of-trepidation of Christmas with my own in-laws.

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Written by PappyBro

December 26, 2012 at 10:28

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